The new rules of protein

HFM investigates why thinking differently about the science behind your nutrition – especially the potential benefits of protein supplements – could be the key to staying in great shape for the year ahead.

So here we are, already a few months into 2021, and it feels like we’ve come a long way in a relatively short space of time. Walk around a supermarket now, and it seems like every other food package is branded as a protein product – there are even protein chocolate bars, somehow. 

The p-word has become ubiquitous, but it all seems to have happened very quickly. You don’t have to go back that far to remember a time when protein supplements like shakes were still fairly niche, and tasted absolutely awful.

Yet, despite this nutrition revolution, how much do we really know about the current thinking surrounding protein, are we over-consuming it, and what is the science telling us about it? 

To answer these questions, let’s rewind a bit to remind ourselves of some nutrition basics that we can never hear too often. Our food is full of nutrients which supply us with energy, the main three being carbohydrates, proteins and fats. These are also known as macronutrients. So far, so straightforward.

As we all (hopefully) know, proteins are the building blocks for our bones and muscles, but they actually play more than just that one role. When the body breaks the proteins down into amino acids, they are pooled for various different uses. ‘The body just restructures proteins from this pool to make different kinds of protein type structures for different uses,’ explains dietitian and sports nutritionist Felicity Lyons.

‘I like to use the alphabet analogy when describing this to my clients. Amino acids are like the different letters in the alphabet – we need different amino acids for different proteins in the same way that we need different letters for different words.’

How much, when?

Important tasks performed by proteins include: helping to form enzymes which stimulate our body’s reactions; making up neurotransmitters in the brain; acting as hormones; being used as an energy fuel when glycogen stores are low; and helping to regulate metabolic pathways (chemical processes in the body such as digesting food).

Despite all the different jobs that protein  performs, current advice suggests that most of us need no more than 10-15% of our energy intake to be provided by it, according to Lyons. ‘Generally speaking, for the body to work optimally we look to protein consumed across a 24-hour period – so if we’re not consuming enough during this time, the body may start to break down its own tissue to source amino acids that haven’t been supplied,’ she says.

And that means an even spread of protein eaten over the day is the optimal way of giving your body what it needs, with Lyons recommending that we aim to consume 15-25g of protein as part of every meal.

All of which is very useful to know, but what if you’re entering 2021 with some serious health and fitness goals, and you’re thinking about using protein supplements to help you achieve your aims? You don’t need to be intent on bulking up to benefit from  regular, additional protein consumption as it can be helpful whether you’re just trying to maintain muscle mass, build your strength for endurance challenges, or trying to manage your weight in the year ahead.

‘We are all individuals with different days ahead of us and what I need may be different to what you need. This can also change on a daily basis,’ says Lyons, who advises the use of protein supplements for anyone finding it difficult to eat all the calories they might need to fuel intensive training sessions.

Active protein

‘The science says that for individuals who are more active, we do need a higher intake of protein than is recommended for the general population,’ she says. ‘We need the extra protein to compensate for breakdown of protein during and immediately after exercise, and to ensure we optimise repair  and growth of new muscle and bone tissue.’  As well as consuming protein straight after exercise to enhance muscle recovery, Lyons stresses the importance of the fuel you take on board before you work out. ‘Ensure you’re properly fuelled so that you optimise your carb storage (glycogen) and minimise your use of protein as a fuel,’ she says. ‘But the longer and more intense your training, the more likely your need for more protein.’

If you’re into cardio or endurance exercise like running or cycling, you’ll want to increase your protein intake, but not at the expense of your carbohydrate or fat intake, with Lyons stressing that the protein percentage of our energy intake shouldn’t change. While there is an emphasis on carb loading for endurance events, we shouldn’t forget the need for more protein, in proportion.

Bulking up

When it comes to building muscle and strength, clearly you’re going to need more protein than the average daily guidelines suggest. Lyons recommends thinking about a daily intake of approximately 1.6g-2g of protein per kilo of your own bodyweight. So, if you weigh 75kg, you’re looking at trying to consume between 120g and 150g of protein.

‘The suggested way to build muscle is to increase your overall calorie intake by around 20% or you can trial an increase of about 200kcal per day and see where that gets you,’ says Lyons. ‘In the first few hours after a strength-training session, the rate of breakdown of muscle tissue exceeds the rate of synthesis. It’s important to ensure that you work to achieve a positive nitrogen balance [since nitrogen is a key component of protein], so that the body is retaining more protein than it is excreting or has been used as fuel.’

If you aren’t getting enough protein in those crucial post-exercise hours, you run the risk of wasting all that hard work you’ve put in, because you could actually be encouraging your body to reduce muscle mass.

‘If you don’t get yourself into positive nitrogen balance, you can end up with a slower rate of growth of muscle size and mass, slower increase in strength, and even lose muscle mass despite hard training,’ warns Lyons, adding that timing your protein intake – and balancing it with carbs – is crucial.

Age-related intake

But it’s not just those of us who want to get stronger who can benefit from an increase in protein. Lyons believes that as we age  we could all benefit from extra protein.  ‘When we are older, our bodies are more physiologically resistant to making bone and muscle so the thinking is that supplying more protein content will optimise these functions physiologically. ‘Those over 50 who are especially active might benefit from protein in between meals – that extra protein can come from food-based snacks or from protein supplements,’ she says

Likewise, anyone recovering from illness or injury could also use the extra protein and, according to Lyons, it’s ‘a whole lot easier to make a shake than cook a steak.’

Weight-management perks

Whatever age you are, protein can help with any weight goals you may have, whether it’s protein supplements or protein found naturally in your food. ‘Using protein is a great way to help with weight management,’ says Lyons. ‘For any weight reduction diet, we need to cut calories.’ 

She explains that there are three ways that this can work. Eating more protein in a meal can leave us feeling fuller for longer, which can help reduce our overall calorie intake; taking in more protein proportionally can help preserve your lean tissue, whether you’re exercising or not; and more energy is used during the metabolism of protein meaning that it ‘exerts a higher thermic effect’ that keeps your body working.

In one trial, young adults who regularly skipped breakfast were given a higher protein breakfast, resulting in a reduction of the amount of high fat and high sugar snacks they ate throughout the day. This theory of protein leverage (see page 33) is another key part of how protein can assist with weight management, according to Lyons.

Protein risks

Although it’s an essential nutritional source, it’s also possible to overdo it with protein, especially if you’re not getting enough exercise. ‘If you overconsume protein and you are not utilising its energy content, you will simply gain weight, and that weight will be
as fat stores,’ explains Lyons.

There is also a risk of kidney stones for people who overuse protein supplements and don’t train intensively with it, while any diet high in red meat protein can also increase risks of heart disease and colon cancer due to the high concentration of saturated fat in some of those animal-based products.

But those concerns are based on extreme protein intakes where the required amount of exercise is lacking.  As you consider your plans for the year ahead, think about your nutrition alongside your other goals. We’ve all come a long way, but it’s never too late to learn and start afresh.  

What is protein leverage?

Dietitian Felicity Lyons explains how eating protein earlier in the day may assist with weight management

‘Protein leverage is an idea which looks at using protein as a lever to change and manage our weight and health better. 

‘The hypothesis is that by consuming more protein earlier and evenly across the day, we optimise the functions of protein in the body, and impact our hunger for food generally so that we eat less. 

‘The concept is based on looking at dietary intake within populations around the world, with the conclusion that protein intake tends to plateau at roughly 15% of energy intake. The other energy-giving nutrients are the ones where we see variation: some populations may eat more fat and some more carbs, but most tend to get 15% or less of their energy intake from protein.’ 

Timing is everything

‘Some scientists suggest that protein intake is really quite well managed by the body, and that once we have hit our requirement (11-15% of total energy intake) we turn off the appetite tap that is seeking protein, and just stop eating. 

‘And that’s where it’s interesting, as we know the majority of us are struggling with managing our weight. One reason for this weight challenge may be because we are not consuming sufficient protein early enough in the day. So we continue to seek out foods to satiate our appetite on a physiological and a psychological level, but continue to feel “hunger” as the body is driving us to seek out protein to fulfil its needs for all its functions. 

‘We also know that we tend to eat a bigger serving of protein at our evening meal, by which time many of us will have already over-eaten on fats and sugars. 

‘Therefore, leveraging the protein with earlier consumption during the morning, could be part of the answer to our weight-management problems, as we’ll simply be less hungry throughout the day.’ 

Try these protein products

If you’re looking for the perfect protein supplements to support your workout regime, step this way…

PE Nutrition Simply Whey Protein (£10, 600g)
If you’re looking to add protein to your diet, this is a fantastic place to start, no matter what your goals may be. Unlike many other protein supplements, this newly relaunched brand exclusive to Holland & Barrett has
a new formula that boasts 100% natural flavourings, is free from ACE-K (a common artificial sweetener) and comes in widely recycled packaging. Buy now

PE Nutrition Performance Lean Protein (£15, 900g)
If you’re stepping things up in 2021, this lean protein will support you all the way. Along with high-quality whey protein, it includes green tea extract, CLA and L-carnitine, to help with fat-burning. Buy now

PE Nutrition Performance Gainer (£20, 2.4kg)
Designed to aid muscle mass gain, this has 25g of high-quality milk and egg protein per serving, with the right balance of carbs, vitamins and minerals. Buy now

Photograph: iStock

Find more expert nutrition advice in the latest issue of Healthy For Men, on sale now in Holland & Barrett stores and online at

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